At the flick of a switch last night, Apple distributed U2’s latest album to over 500m iTunes customers. And without us asking, the very worst example of corporate dad-rock began to appear on all of our phones, tablets and computers.
Whilst in a just world, the act of inflicting Bono on an already suffering world would surely be enough to have Tim Cook hauled in front of The Hague, this was in fact a warning shot. A reminder that it is no longer ourselves that decide what we see, hear and speak about – or even our governments – but the all powerful corporations.
I’ve written before on how it is weird that corporations get to decide what is good for us to see, and that we’ve unknowingly handed massive amounts of power to a handful of companies (Apple, Google, Facebook and a handful of others). And this has potentially huge implications for our freedom of expression.
That’s right – I’m going to bang on about my favourite hobby horse: Corporate control of our lives.
We know now that Apple has the power to send music to all of our devices – just like it can decide what apps appear on the app store – but what if next time it decides take something away? Imagine if a corporation decided that a certain book was so dangerous that we shouldn’t be allowed to read it, so it removed it from all of our devices. In a digital world – it would be like walking into your house and removing selected texts from your bookshelf.
Believe it or not this has already literally happened: In 2009 the concept of irony was found dead at the scene when it was discovered that Amazon had been secretly deleting George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles. For the uninitiated, the book is essentially a warning against the idea of censorship.
In the 1984 case, Amazon blamed a copyright dispute – but it proves the mechanism for mass removal is there. What if in a few years CEO Jeff Bezos were to get sick of people reading The Everything Store, an unauthorised biography of himself?
What if next time there’s an election Amazon, Google and Apple were to get worried about a socialist candidate promising to clamp down on tax avoidance, and so choose to gift all users of their devices a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? Or what if they help promote the election literature of one particular candidate by downloading videos to your iPhone?
Sounds pretty farfetched, right? The tools are already there. We already know that Facebook has been experimenting with what it shows us on our newsfeeds and has even meddled in an election before – the company did an experiment where they reminded everyone in a certain district to vote, and boosted turnout.
In a world where content is no longer physically owned, but controlled by a handful of corporations the above examples are not completely impossible: The mechanisms to make them happen are already in place – it is just that so far the corporations have remained relatively benevolent, and by handing them so much control over what we see, hear and read, if they decided to turn evil there isn’t much we can do to stop them.